Saturday, April 10, 2010

Am I Tipper Gore?

After my last post, in which I tsk-tsk-ed the appropriateness of Lady Gaga's videos for her tween/Nick Kids' Choice fans, and I had a letter published in the Washington Post last week suggesting that they should keep the "Kids Post" section of the paper kid-friendly even on the days it doesn't run, my son asked me a question.

"So, are you becoming one of those outraged parents?"

"What do you mean?" I asked, innocently.

"You know, like Tipper Gore."

Ouch. This is an especially sore point with me, not only because I am a writer who believes in artistic freedom, but because I am a librarian by training. Whether non-librarians realize this or not, you almost have to take a vow in library school that you will offer up information freely and uncensored. The question was posited in my introduction to librarianship class (called "The Block" in those days): if a teenager asked for information on how to commit suicide, would you give it to him or her?

I, surprisingly, was in the minority of those who were hesitant to hand over such material. My suggestion of also tucking in a pamphlet or phone number for a suicide hotline was met with hoots from some of the most ardent students.

I thought I was done with that question until I applied to be a reference librarian at a local public library a few years later. Facing a circle of librarians and managers, I was asked what I would do if a teenager asked for information on how to commit suicide.

"Well," I said, breaking out in a light sweat, "I guess I would help them find the information, but I would worry about them. I might also want to steer them to information on depression or suicide prevention." Wrong answer. Scribbles were put down in notebooks, the head librarian frowned. Later, after the interview questions were done, I was asked if I had any comments or questions. I said that I would like to revise my previous answer about the suicidal teenager.

"I realize, now, that really this is a question about censorship, and whether I feel that it's my place to censor the information that people access, and the answer is 'No, it's not.'" The head librarian smiled and nodded, and I was later offered the job (which I ended up not taking).

Yet I couldn't help wanting to add a parenthetical postscript, a whispered aside, "I'd give them the information, but I would wonder why they were researching it. If a teenage boy said he wanted to know how to hang himself, how could I rightly and forthrightly offer him instructions without trying to hear why he wanted it?"

The local libraries are so crowded and short-staffed now, it's unlikely that there would be time for such a conversation anymore.

And Tipper Gore is a sore point with me, as well, because I didn't think that her crusade was all that bad years ago—as a parent I appreciate the "Explicit lyrics" tag on albums and songs, which resulted from it. No one objects to the rating system on movies; I'm sure most people can agree that they wouldn't want a seven-year-old walking into a Quentin Tarantino movie.

Yes, I know that 99 percent of rock songs are about sex—no need to stop the presses for that revelation. It's the songs about violent sex I object to, the humiliation of women, the glorification of murder, especially in rap lyrics. While I defend the right of the artists to sing what they want to, I don't want to buy it and I'd like to shield children from it.

In wanting to get to some kind of conclusion here, I looked up Tipper Gore just now on Wikipedia. The song that started her crusade, "Darling Nikki," is from "Purple Rain," which I still think is a fantastic album and movie. In context of the movie, Prince is denigrating a woman because he is hurt and mad; it's supposed to be a nasty song. I understand that—the song never bothered me. But I wouldn't want little girls to prance around singing it, magazine in hand. That's not censorship, that's good sense.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Beth, thanks for taking the "it takes a village" approach to library science. As a father of a teenager and a too-soon-to-be teen, I appreciate your light-handed approach (better than no hand IMO).

To borrow heavily from the real estate adage: The three most important words in the early 21st century are: context, context, and context. Finding the edges of that context is so hard these days. "Lady GaGa: good or bad?" just doesn't cut it. I'm constantly on the hunt for those shades of gray. Gotta keep up with culture so I can at least know where to begin my search.